This is the key question so many of us involved in the gun debate face. On a personal level, answering it has big implications for our families’ safety. As Amy discussed in a recent post, having a gun in the household increases the chances that someone in the household will die by gunshot, though even in households with guns there are many things you can do to keep your kids safer.

US and Japanese Flags With GunBut what about across the country? At the national level, the question has big implications for our country’s laws. Many people carry concealed or unconcealed weapons in public places out of fear of crime. Some people argue (see, for instance, here) that laws that allow easy access to guns and that allow guns to be carried in public places in the United States help to keep crime rates down. A recent study in The American Journal of Medicine – one of our country’s most prestigious sources of cutting-edge research in medicine and public health – concludes that that the answer is decidedly “No.”

The authors of this study examine rates of firearm ownership in 27 developed countries: from culturally relatively similar ones like Australia and New Zealand, to culturally quite different ones such as Japan. They also consider rates of major depressive disorder in those countries. Then they ask how firearm ownership and mental health problems in each country are related to the crime rate and the number of firearm deaths per person.

What they find is striking: the more guns in a country, the higher its rate of firearm deaths. The relationship is very strong, and holds up even when you don’t consider the countries at the extremes, such as the United States (high gun ownership, high firearm death rate) and Japan (low gun ownership, low firearm death rate). No matter how you slice the data, the more guns a country has, the more likely the average citizen is to die by gunshot. By contrast, there is a small, statistically significant relationship between mental illness and rates of gun deaths, but the association is very weak.

But some people might say that even if more guns means more gun deaths, criminals will be less likely to strike in countries where they fear that their potential victims could have a concealed weapon. In other words, maybe crime rates go down at the same time that would-be criminals are more likely to get killed. Unfortunately, once again the authors find that the answer is “No.” They find that there is no relationship between the number of guns per person in a country and the country’s crime rate. The U.S. happens to have a lot of guns and, in recent years, pretty low crime rates. But Japan has very few guns and even lower crime rates. And the UK and Israel have fewer guns than the U.S., but more crime.

Surely there must be some cases in which the presence of guns helps to prevent a crime, or in which potential victims kill would-be attackers. Still, this study has a very clear conclusion: on average and across the developed world, having more guns does NOT make countries safer.

We will be gradually updating our website with reports and research related to gun violence both within the U.S. and across the world. This is our first entry of this sort in which we’ve summarized a UN report on murders across the world.

Photo by Mateusz Stachowski.

Photo by Mateusz Stachowski.

You can download the pdf here of the global study on homicide, commissioned by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in 2011. This study seeks to provide a global overview of homicides by using a comprehensive collection of cross-national and time series homicide statistics. The statistical evidence and analyses in the study are meant to increase our understanding of the trends and patterns of homicide. The goal is to use the data to help develop effective policies that would curb lethal violence and its side effects.

Two conclusions the authors determined regarding firearms based on the data:

  • A significant body of research indicates that firearm availability predominantly represents a risk factor rather than a protective factor for homicide.
  • Countries in the Americas show a strong correlation between homicide rates and the percentage of homicides by firearms.

Things to note before reading study

  • For the purposes of the study the term “homicide” refers to “intentional homicides” in which the perpetrator intended for their actions to cause death or serious injury. This EXCLUDES: deaths related to crimes of passion, deaths related to negligence or recklessness by the perpetrator as well as deaths that were considered justifiable such a self defense.
  • The term “The Americas” refers to a region of multiple countries in both North America and South America. The data from the United States is included in the data for this region. When referring to Northern America, they mean Bermuda, Canada and the United States. More »